Cheaters, liars, outlaws, fallen angels
Come looking for the grace from which they fell
So they hold on to each other
In the darkness
Cause the morning light is hell 
At the Camelot Motel
— Mary Gautier

There is no setting more evocative in American storytelling than the motel. It is transitory, interchangeable, rife with cultural connotations. It appears locked in an eternal time warp somewhere between 1949 and 1999. Its definitive literary archetype, the Bates Motel in Robert Bloch’s Psycho (later the iconic Hitchcock film), is shorthand for everything from shabbiness to deviance, provincialism, and murder.

The motel’s range as a narrative device is vast: it provided the small-town hot-sheet hideout in The Last Picture Show, where Jacy Farrow loses her virginity on the second try; the diversion where Thelma and Louise are robbed by a one night stand; and the trap where the sinister villain of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men exacts final revenge on imperfect hero Llewelyn Moss. The motel can be anything you want, all smoky and neon and forlorn.

I have vivid childhood memories of three motels in my New Mexico hometown, all of which have long since closed down. The first had a simple backlit 1970s marquee with sun-bleached, chipped plastic letters that fell off one by one over the years, never to be replaced. Another, a western-themed spot at the edge of town, featured a billboard-size sign painted in back-slanted knockoff Holiday Inn cursive straddled by a loopy, faceless cowboy lassoing nothing in particular. The best was the Arrow Motel, signed by a neon Indian archer in a multicolor headdress slinging animated arrows toward the registration office. Four years ago, more than a decade after the Arrow hosted its last guests, most of the original building burned to the ground. At long last, the archer had hit his target. The following year, what had remained of the structure was razed, leaving the archer to aim his burned-out neon bow onto an empty field.

On the night my mother escaped her abusive first husband, I was eight. After a public skirmish between the two of them, she sped my sister and me away in her Jeep, new boyfriend in the passenger seat. That night, we hunkered down in a fortresslike cinderblock motel under a buzzing fluorescent sign just off the interstate as the boyfriend sat sentry with a loaded gun. By dawn, in a mostly unrelated twist of fate, someone had stolen the Jeep from the parking lot. A few years later, my seventh-grade science teacher was busted while attempting to score crack at another motel just two blocks away. The site of his glorious downfall, the grimy Crossroads Motel, was later made infamous by an iconic Breaking Bad montage about workaday prostitute Wendy.

Wendy outside the Crossroads Motel from ‘Breaking Bad’ Season 3. Photo courtesy of AMC

For years after the series ended, the old Crossroads—on a downtown stretch of Route 66 right off a busy freeway exit and wholly visible for blocks—was draped with a giant, menacing red banner that read, “Private Property: To take pictures, see office to pay the fee.” Apparently, the owner of the rather unpicturesque motel grew frustrated with gawking shutterbug fans whose presence drove home its budget streetwalker-drug den image instead of generating positive buzz. Still, that the owner of such a place had to practically scream “get off my lawn” via a 20-foot banner reveals a certain trendiness of motel iconography. There are dozens upon dozens of Instagram feeds dedicated to postwar neon signage and roadside architecture, while countless others are peppered with snapshots of dilapidated motels, a waxy-eyed nostalgia bordering on ruin porn.

Michigan City, Indiana, summer 2017.

Symbolic popularity aside, the vast majority of charming old motel signs still standing across the U.S. and Canada demarcate outdated lodgings that—considering their one-star TripAdvisor ratings, shabby bathrooms, and bad Wi-Fi—few middle-class travelers would actually be willing to spend a night in. Instead, these liminal places are collected in snapshots and posted across social media by people eager to co-opt a little analog-era authenticity. Alas, places like the Crossroads Motel have no use for Instagram fans when that notoriety does not translate to more bookings. And we all know that most people worried about looking #authentic on social media aren’t about to actually sleep somewhere with busted Wi-Fi, three fuzzy TV channels, and terrible coffee.

This recent fetishization of the motel as hip retro symbol also belies its widely misunderstood role as one powerful catalyst in the development of our disastrously car-centric urbanism, the homogenizing business of franchising, and the dominance of mass marketing. Rather than being quaint time capsules from an era of innocence, motels were always products of ruthless capitalism, replete with cutthroat land speculation, countless failed upstarts, corporate profiteering, and lowest-common-denominator marketing.

Still, the motel was a democratizing force. Innovations—such as those welcoming signs, free parking, and corporate protocols that at least in theory welcomed every paying guest regardless of class, education, or race—helped make highway travel safer, more accessible, and more inclusive than the downtown hotels, tourist camps, or family-owned guest houses that predated them. Postwar icons—like Holiday Inn, with its rigorously standardized quality and futuristic computer reservation system; Howard Johnson’s, with its friendly restaurants and keen design sensibility; as well as others like Best Western, Sheraton, and Travelodge—each in some way revolutionized highway travel. For a time, they were seen as harbingers of a brighter, shinier modernity—just imagine the difference between a Dust Bowl-era tourist camp and a 1960s Holiday Inn!—and they were the true progenitors of the hyperconnected, super safe, accessible-to-all travel of today.

Illustration: ‘The Motel in America’ by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle, and Jefferson S. Rogers, 1996

Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi’s watershed 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, was the first serious academic consideration of the populist road-speed architecture used by motels. While a few of the signs depicted in the book have been preserved in some form, virtually all the building structures have been spectacularly demolished. One notable exception is the La Concha Motel’s swoopy conch shell-shaped concrete lobby—a quintessential building-as-sign—which now serves as the entry hall to the city’s Neon Museum. More often than not, it is the motel signs, rather than the decorated sheds behind them, that merit preservation.

Sometimes, the shed’s not even decorated.

To be sure, generic designs and cheap, modular construction mean that very few individual motels have ever merited the status of monuments. There are a few notable exceptions to the rule, like the over-the-top kitsch of the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California; the last three remaining Wigwam Villages (one each in California, Arizona, and Kentucky); and Lorraine Motel just south of downtown Memphis, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, which reopened in 1991 as the National Civil Rights Museum. A small number of motels caught the attention of preservationists purely due to their architectural quality, while others—such as a small strip of postwar inns in what is now Miami’s Design District; the Ace in Palm Springs, California; the Jupiter in Portland, Oregon; the Thunderbird in Marfa, Texas; and a growing handful of others—have been renovated into boutique hotels to capitalize on their midcentury appeal.

Some motels, by virtue of their conspicuous decay, live on through artistic intervention. The best example is the Sunset Pacific Motel in Los Angeles, whose vacant carcass and surrounding landscape were painted entirely in stark white by artist Vincent Lamouroux.

National Civil Rights Museum, summer 2018.

Most of these structures, however, live and die ignominiously, regardless of historical significance or architectural novelty. Some served as the crucibles of cultural flash points, such as the long-demolished Algiers Motel in Detroit, where the police massacred three black men and two white women during the bloody 1967 12th Street Riot, or the Days Inn (now a rundown Knights Inn) in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Selena Quintanilla was shot and killed by the president of her fan club in 1995.

A motel is by nature impermanent, indefinite, incomplete. It is a bin of parts to be appended, rearranged, hacked.

Others facilitated more serendipitous encounters, such as the dive motel from which Ron Woodroof built an improvised network for distributing helpful drugs to HIV-positive men in Dallas, or the Sundowner Motor Hotel in Albuquerque, where Paul Allen and Bill Gates were living when they founded Micro-Soft (later Microsoft) in 1975. Today, the Sundowner, now a row of brightly painted low-rent apartments, stands as a gritty corollary to the overblown mythology of the Silicon Valley garage.

The Sundowner Motor Hotel circa 2011, before it was renovated into efficiency apartments.

Late in 2016, I traveled to Colorado to meet Gerald Foos, the octogenarian subject of Gay Talese’s 2015 book The Voyeur’s Motel, who lives in the Denver suburb of Brighton. In the late 1960s, Foos built a secret carpeted viewing platform above several guest rooms at Manor House, a low-slung motel on Colfax Avenue in Aurora he purchased with the explicit aim of watching his guests have sex. For decades, he spied through custom-made louvered grates he engineered and installed. Foos was never caught. His first and second wives were in on the scheme, and he confided in no one aside from Talese.

The reams of journals he kept detail the staggering monotony of domestic life, evolutions in sexual mores from the 1960s to the 1980s, seedy business deals, and the general dishonesty of motel patrons. However, since the book’s publication, several reports have called into question the credibility of Foos’ narrative, not least of which are doubts about a murder he claims to have caused indirectly.

Incongruously, Foos sees himself as a moral man. And although he is currently in no danger of prosecution (no victims have come forward, and even if they did—statutes of limitation), he defends his actions vigorously. He believes that the anthropological value of his misadventures exempts him from being considered a predator, although many who have read Talese’s book would disagree. He also believes that the mass collection of communications data by organizations like the NSA and Facebook exonerates him, given that he made no video, audio, or data recordings and his victims, none of whom apparently ever caught on, remain anonymous.

Foos gushed at length over this ‘world-class’ dinner his wife cooked for us.

The Manor House was demolished well before Foos’ story came to light, but in some ways his particular addition to the motel typology was predictable: A motel is by nature impermanent, indefinite, incomplete. It is a bin of parts to be appended, rearranged, hacked. Even before tiny cameras were a thing, how could you ever really know what might be lurking in that shabby room you just checked into unless you tore the entire thing apart? If Foos’ story is true, could he be the only one who ever did such a thing? More likely, he is simply the only one who contacted a journalist of Talese’s stature.

The motel is a trope precisely because it is a blank canvas. If briefcases of money, FBI stings, fleeting sexual encounters, and murders are thrilling on film and TV, they must be exhilarating firsthand. The history of peering illicitly into motel rooms is longer and broader than one pervy dude drooling over randos behind a grate in Aurora.

There is a well-worn pattern of American development in which a new motel is built and thrives, then steadily devolves over the decades. It is bought and sold, shoddily renovated and redecorated, swapping out its signage every few years for a succession of ever-less-prestigious brands before inevitably falling into ruin. After a decade, a shiny 1960s Holiday Inn becomes a no-frills Ramada, then a threadbare Super 8, then a downright shabby Rodeway Inn before limping on for a few more years as an ominous no-name flophouse before finally being fenced off and bulldozed. This template has been repeated ad infinitum along hundreds of car-centric corridors across America since at least the 1970s, and the degeneration perfectly embodies James Howard Kunstler’s narrative of an America so endemically ugly that it isn’t much worth caring about:

The immersive ugliness of the built environment in the USA is entropy made visible. It indicates not simple carelessness but a vivid drive toward destruction, decay and death: the stage-set of a literal “death trip,” of a society determined to commit suicide.
The Geography of Nowhere

Still, ugliness is subjective. Flickering neon and wood paneling can be more than just evocative; they can be downright beautiful. An entire (very popular) subgenre of American photography relies heavily on motel imagery both literal and abstract. Legions of erstwhile Instagrammers and greats like Stephen Shore, Todd Hido, and others continue the tradition. Why do we like looking at these places so much? Is it because they have always hidden in plain sight? Is it because they embody any number of deep dark desires? Is it merely because they evoke an idealized time?

To spend time in an old motel circa 2019 is to have a welcome respite from the oppressive, self-conscious, glossy smoothness of hypermodernity. In a motel, you are in transit, you are liminal, you are stopping en route to somewhere else to catch your breath and stretch your legs and take a dip. Foos’ insistence that his voyeurism was benign compared to the NSA’s reveals one basic truth: The motel room is one of the few and rapidly vanishing contemporary spaces unbound by incessant electronics and exempt from all pretense and middle-class good taste. You can play Thelma and Louise or Don Draper. You can time travel, call collect, make a deal, have a whiskey on the rocks.

The motel can be anything you want, all smoky and neon and forlorn.

An earlier, abridged version of this essay was printed in Us of America Issue #2.